It’s been a while since Alejandro Villanueva could call himself a football player.
For Villanueva, a former U.S. Army captain who spent the past four years in the military (see story), the Eagles’ OTAs over the past three weeks have been the first time he's participated in football activities since a tryout with the Cincinnati Bengals following his senior season at Army in 2009.
“I feel like a football player again,” Villanueva said following the Eagles' OTA on Tuesday. “I feel like I’m doing all the requirements that all the other players are doing, so I feel like I’m part of the team.”
However, his time with the Eagles so far hasn’t had much in common with his football experience at Army.
At 6-foot-9 and 277 pounds, Villanueva’s size and speed were so uncommon for Army that his coaches were never quite sure how to best maximize his abilities. He played three positions in four years, starting off as a defensive lineman, developing into a starting left offensive tackle as a junior before converting to wide receiver as a senior and leading the team with 34 receptions, 522 yards and five touchdowns.
The Eagles have determined that his size will be best spent as a defensive end, a decision that is perfectly fine with Villanueva. After the constant shuffling in college, he is looking forward to finally being able to develop at one position.
“[Playing defense] is a lot different but the coaching has been great, so I’ve been able to learn from all of them,” Villanueva said. “If they think I have a better chance of playing defensive [line], I’ll play there.”
Having not played defense since the beginning of his sophomore year of college, Villanueva has relied heavily on his new teammates to learn defensive coordinator Billy Davis’ scheme, particularly two-time Pro Bowler Trent Cole and second-year defensive end Brandon Bair.
Although his height would seem to give him potential as a pass rusher, Villanueva has concentrated mostly on learning the run-stuffing techniques that come with playing defensive end in the 3-4.
“[Defensive line] coach [Jerry] Azzinaro has been adamant about the key points I can focus on,” Villanueva said. “In our scheme, striking and using my legs are those things. As we progress, hopefully I can put those things into play and improve from where I started.”
In reality, Villanueva’s focus is not on what position he plays as much as it is simply making the team.
A team captain his senior year at West Point, Villanueva's biggest adjustment has been adapting his mindset to fighting for a roster spot after being a key player in college.
Earning a spot on special teams will likely be his best chance to make the final roster; he spent much of Tuesday’s session practicing with the kick return unit.
“Playing football at Army is pretty special and obviously I have a lot more experience there,” Villanueva said. “[Playing for the Eagles] is a different situation. At Army I played four years and was always able to contribute and now I’m just trying to make the team.
“Making the team [is my goal], so if they put me on all the special teams that would be the best news.”
In his few weeks as an Eagle, Villanueva has already received numerous questions from his teammates about his time in the Army. He served three tours in Afghanistan during his four years of service.
Although he is eager to move on with this new chapter in his life as a professional athlete, Villanueva has no problem with teammates asking him about his past. If anything, the camaraderie in the locker room has been his favorite part of playing football again.
“Sometimes they ask about it (being in the army) when they have a question that’s been burning them,” Villanueva said. “Usually they have a question about how things are run. It’s a learning experience for a lot of them. My teammates have been awesome, so it’s been pretty fun overall.”